The Ethics of Transparency

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Maybe it was just an “off” day at my neighborhood grocery store. The polar vortex has been wreaking havoc–the sleet was attacking cars and houses on my way there–but I had a baffling experience. Actually, three separate ones.

First I stopped at the in-store pharmacy to pick up a prescription. Turned out there were two. I barely glanced at them, then paid. As I was walking away from the window I looked more closely at the bottles. One was, in fact, a prescription that I had just picked up a week before and hadn’t even used since the back pain was allayed. I handed it back to the pharmacy tech who looked at me blankly.

“I just bought this but I just picked up the original prescription last week. I know there are monthly automatically refills but it has been seven days–I don’t need a refill.”

“Oh. We can’t take that back–you left the pharmacy with it.”

“I stepped away but came right back. I’m actually a bit concerned that the pharmacy would refill this when it is a muscle relaxant and I just was given thirty pills last week.”

“You don’t want it on automatic refill, then?”

“Well, I don’t want it refilled in seven days, no. Maybe in thirty days, but not likely then, either. But certainly not in seven. Right?”

The quiet-eyed young woman looked at me, speechless. She could see I wasn’t going to budge.

“I’ll talk to the pharmacist.”

She returned in a minute and spoke conspiratorially. “Oh, you’re lucky! I’ll refund you money but this really shouldn’t happen.”

“I agree. I mean, I should not have a thirty-day refill in just a week. especially not a prescription like this one.”

As we were completing the transaction, the pharmacist came up to the window.

He frowned a bit. “It’s not really legal to take back a prescription once you walk away with it. It can’t happen again.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. I decided it best not to engage in further discussion about refilling a medication weeks before it was due. Or question why, then, he was refunding my cash. It was ten bucks–that wasn’t really the issue here. I took the refund and moved on.

Next up was the deli counter. I eyed the mesquite wood smoked turkey, the cheaper one, with all the nitrates and antibiotics. My favorite deli person was there after being gone awhile.

“Oh, hi! How are you? Great. Could I have one-third pound of the mesquite turkey breast?”

“In-house?’

I nodded.

“The other brands are so good, you know. Would you like a sample of this one?” She pointed at the most expensive kind.

“Well…”

She had already turned away. Before I knew it she had placed a slice of the $12.99/pound brand on the counter to test out. I did. The woman has always been friendly and helpful and I was glad to see her cheery face. It was top-notch meat as I knew it would be.

“Okay, but just a third pound, as usual.”

I was talking to someone else when she handed me the bag of sliced meat. It felt a bit heavy as I turned my cart around. Sure enough, it was one pound not a third.

I was about to say something but she was busy helping another. I felt slightly disappointed. Maybe she didn’t remember me or my usual orders of one-third pound only, despite my seeing her there for years. BShe may not have heard me. But I took the bait, the sample, after all. I might have been more savvy, too.

It was one thing to hand back a bottle of pills I shouldn’t even have. It was another to hand back sliced deli meat and ask for two-thirds of it to be removed. Besides, she had always served me kindly. Maybe it would look good for her that more meat was sold today, who knows?

As I was checking out with all my items, the cashier was intent on his work and I was wondering over the deli lady and pharmacist. It was time to swipe my debit card.

“Oops, my rewards card! Have to give that to you for the points. You forgot to ask me for it. That doesn’t usually happen. But here it is.”

I was smiling at him and had spoken in a light-hearted way, but he frowned at me.”I did ask if you had put all your stuff in the card reader.” He punched some buttons. “Swipe again.”

“Oh, I did, but I don’t swipe my rewards card, right? You get my number with your magic scanner.”

He took my rewards card. Rewards points add up. He handed me the receipt with a nod and a less than spontaneous smile. I thanked him and left.

On the way home I recalled an error of over two hundred dollars at the store after my husband had picked up wedding flowers for me. I realized the cashier had hurriedly scanned each label only once rather than for each arrangement. The next day I returned to the florist and paid up. She was embarrassed and so relieved she nearly teared up. It made a difference in her till and my conscience.

This is not, however, about customer service not being what it used to be. In fact, my neighborhood store has been my spot for twenty years. I appreciate it enough to call it by an affectionate nickname rather than its formal name. The customer service is generally outstanding–I wrote a commendation about a sales person recently. And even though there is a new, fancy and overpriced “natural foods” store nearby, I am not tempted to run there.

I admit it did not escape me that in two of the instances the responsibility wasn’t shouldered by the employees. (I hope the deli person would have gladly decreased the weight of turkey if asked.)

It had to be the weather system, a pressure change; sleet and snow falling from the heavens is a rarity and we temporarily lose our equlibirium in this town.

No, this is about my tendency to speak up. Complain. Note errors and request corrections. I have a reputation among family and friends as one who will not easily let things be if they appear wrong. If I am served a dish at a restaurant that is not well-prepared, it goes back. If I buy something that doesn’t hold up through the first washing, it is returned immediately. When a sales person is rude or outright lying rather than bothering to locate something–and I find it on my own–I address it. I figure if people expect a good service rendered for a price paid and if that service doesn’t happen, then the situation needs to be remedied.

As you might imagine, things can get stirred up. I’m not aggressive but …politely adamant. Forthcoming. Occasionally my spouse or others might hide their faces. I still stand my ground. Despite the outcome, I have rarely regretted trying to address a deleterious situation.

I contracted with a provider of chairs for my daughter’s wedding. Everything seemed perfect until the day of the wedding. A huge truck (which had arrived late and was bound for a bigger delivery later) had trouble maneuvering the narrow service road. It delayed the wedding nearly twenty minutes.

I had a reasonable discussion with the company about extra money paid to ensure delivery and pick up times specific, or “sharp time.” I wanted that money refunded, as there was nothing “sharp” about the delivery (or pick up). When the owner’s wife emerged from her private office, I began to feel a little doubt. Her presence was made clear: formidable. She was taller, older, better dressed than I was and knew how to talk business with precision. But I was committed. The exchange grew animated. It was their series of errors, not mine. After fifteen minutes, she agreed it was not good that the wedding was delayed due to her driver. She almost began to concede that there should have been a smaller truck or logistics ought to have been better planned, then caught herself and retreated to her office. But I did not have to pay extra for “sharp time.”

All the above refers to services or products provided. But is it always worth it to press matters when a more serious situation is perceived as wrong or unwise? I certainly found out the hard way at work over the years. If my boss was open to hearing concerns or issues, then yes, it was worth it. If not, I risked creating conflict and a more difficult job scenario, then working harder at times to stay in good graces. But people knew I would keep ethics as my top priority with my clients and co-workers–like it or not.

It was drummed into me to be responsible for my actions. I grew up thinking others were given the same dictates. Additionally, I experienced abuse that was kept so secret there were many years of suffering before I made it known. “Courage despite the odds” became a new motto. I vowed to make accountability a trait I would hold dear. I held others accountable as well. And I knew I’d have to fight that sly leaning toward self-righteousness–so many people let things slide by and it didn’t seem that terrible except to me–so I tried to take my own daily moral inventory.

I have taken ethics seriously in my personal life and in work. The principles governing choices matter. They are a standard of ideals and behaviors that signal a determination to take action correctly, even morally. If someone verbally commits to something, that is as good as a signature on the line to me. If we all know what the rules are, then the procedure or game or endeavor will unfold according to those rules if at all possible. If there are underhanded activities and someone I know falls victim, I will stand up and say so. And as a wife, sister, mother and grandmother, if there is unfair treatment of my family when all has been completely reviewed, you will find me ready to fight for justice. If someone is to blame, I’ll stand by them but the responsibility will be theirs.

As a counselor I gladly made a vow to practice my trade within a legally binding agreement to provide ethical services. During my last position I labored as long as I could before I decided to leave the place of employment after many years. There were too many blurred lines, too many practices that avoided or even violated ethics we were to uphold. Many were just swept under the rug. I was vocal but barely heard; superiors attempted to placate me. They knew they could count on me to do good work. But when unethical issues impacted both employees and our clients, that was it. Many things happened that I documented and eventually handed the HR Director the day I left the company.

The last straw happened as I was doing paperwork after my late therapy group on the second floor. There was another counselor there. She waved me on my way but I waited for her to get done. I felt we shouldn’t be left alone in the large, empty building. I had repeatedly asked for more security measures: at least two or three persons present (I was fairly often alone) in the building at night, an alarm system, better lighting for the isolated parking lot and walkways, locks for the door to the team room since distressed clients could and did walk right in, an emergency code word to use over speaker phone in case we were threatened or attacked by clients (which had happened). To no avail. My co-workers admitted they were concerned, too, but they wanted to keep their jobs more. I loved my work as a mental health and addictions clinician but safety was paramount in a field where anything can happen. And does happen, as headlines shout at us every day.

We didn’t even know it was happening, although I thought I’d heard something beneath us. Had even gone down to finally turn out a lobby light as we left. But someone (it was later speculated a client or delivery person) had sneaked in with other people, then hidden in a room after hours. And stole thousands of dollars worth of items, tried to steal medications. Right below our floor as I worked uneasily. We were lucky. Our clients could become violent in a flash.

What had begun as an ethics question–how to ensure safety for all our clients, and how to keep the environment safe both for effective treatment and for providers–became an answer, loud and clear to me. Time to retire. When I talked with the HR Director, she was appalled at what I had experienced for months. Why hadn’t I directly contacted her? Well, it had occurred to me. But I kept expecting my supervisor to finally do something. I kept trying to go through proscribed channels.

I learned something that day. Sometimes one ought to consider being more bold than I had been as it may garner a better result. I was offered my job back. But it was too late. I was done, and in the end, I felt felt at peace with my choice.

The bigger question in my personal life now that I am not working for pay is: how much can an issue ultimately matter? How do I pick my battles? I am in the habit of being in an advocacy position for others. But I also look out for myself. I count on myself first, others second. It seems the sensible thing. The world can be frenzied, fraught with complex demands, pressured by a drive to get more accomplished in less time. We become beset by distractions and must determine what deserves attention at any given moment.

I want a quality life. Time is a disappearing act, invisible and scarce save for what the clock insists. I want good things like everyone does, experiences I can count as worthwhile and enjoyable. Details can have a mighty impact on the overall picture. I don’t require perfection, but I do seek excellence. Then the pieces tend to align well. I belive we are still more likely to get what we need if we ask, even lobby for it. And more often what we genuinely want.

It’s risky speaking up and stating the truth as we see it. It requires taking chances that may not end up as hoped. The vulnerability can seem too great when we get serious about personal matters like love and trust. How best to be honest and when is it enough–or too much? I want to live my life responsibly, for others and for myself. It has been a paramount goal. If wrong, I’ll admit to error first, try to correct matters. I can also accept a “good job done”. If we each stand up and are counted, we can be heard–but not if we wish we had spoken yet remain silent. We are so fortunate to have a gift of freedom to speak what we mean. God willing, I will not sqaunder it.

Authenticity is part of seeking the truth. It is a powerful thing. We respond to this quality in many instances, whether being riveted by great performers to making true friends to respecting good bosses. Why not be the sort of human beings who are as we appear, people who live what we believe?

May we strive to be transparent. To seek justice in even simple ways. To discover and share small and large truths as they need to be known.

7 thoughts on “The Ethics of Transparency

  1. Wow this was fantastic and so true! Perhaps if i was more forthcoming with my disappointments in customer service, relationships and all cross the board really, I would be more satisfied with my results. Props to you for paying back your florist, I am certain that meant a lot to her!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here. Glad it struck a chord! Well, perhaps not only disappointments, I hope, but offering feedback or even possible solutions when things impact us. Plus commending folks when something is well done hleps.I think it is really using our voices and influence that counts–do keep speaking up, thoughtful reader! We are all in this together, as the saying goes. Regards–happy week-end to you.

  2. Sadly it appears that complacency is all too common, whether it comes from the evils of being overwhelmed or because folks have simply given up and given in…I don’t know, but like yourself, I believe it is evermore apparent that the need exists, that of being present in the moment, and acting upon it, rather than reacting. We might find the world less apathetic, our lives better balanced, as well as our mind sets.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful comment–that complacency may be a barrier to speaking out and being accountabile is an interestng idea and makes real sense. I had considered fear a main culprit–fear of ostracization, of work demerits, of perhaps embarrassment. Apathy does appear to be ever problematic, and that is worrisome to me…I like that you view being present and responsive as counteractive to this attitude. Now how to help prevent the inertia that keeps people from engaging?

      I raise my (cranberry juice) glass to you.

      1. Well sweet soul, I raise my coffee cup to you!

        We must do what we are doing…Speaking up…and we must encourage others to do so. I think learning “How to think on one’s feet,” is paramount. The greatest example of the day, where that HAS FAILED to happen, is Ferguson, Missouri. No one is listening to anyone, everyone has already drawn that proverbial line in the sand. There are no winners in that situation.

        Thanks for writing. I enjoy your work. You open eyes with your thoughts. Please continue forward. Enjoy your day. 🙂

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